Typically, pragmatic isn’t a word you would use to describe an artist. By its nature, art is superfluous and impractical. The people who create art also tend to be tapped into a world the rest of us don’t understand, making the artist a misunderstood figure, which is a stereotype local artist Dawna Whitehead hates.
“My first oil painting class at school, my teacher was a piece of shit,” she says to me. “Like our final project we had to take our piece and bury it for a week, if possible in a river, dig it back up, and then finish painting it. Like one of our projects was to listen to a song and paint how we felt about it. He fits all the stereotypes.”
Mimicking her professor she says, “‘I went to Purdue and this was my final project and it had wood shavings slowly dripping down on it…it was like interactive.’ Like that was his jam. Not exactly what I was looking for in a painting class,” she says with a chuckle over her sketchbook.
I ask her where her inspiration for creating art comes from, if not from some artsy fartsy ether.
She replies with a laugh, “Whatever someone tells me to do. Like if someone wanted a painting with a dog, I’d hate it because I never want to paint dogs, but if you’re paying me for it, I would get it done.”
Dawna always knew that she had a proclivity towards drawing and painting. In grade school, she would sneakily steal paper to color on from the teacher’s stash of printer paper. Later on, she and her siblings would run a Face Painting and Henna business during the summers. Her artistic pragmatism was born from having an enjoyable skill that also pulled in the dollar bills.
“I like the act of creating something,” she says. “Face Painting and Henna are quick art and give me that quick momentary satisfaction. The medium itself is impermanent because no child is gonna sit still for 15 hours while I perfect the design and it’ll most likely be washed off by the end of the night. This gives me that quick hit of having created something because otherwise, I’m a bit of a perfectionist. A canvas painting could take a couple of weeks to complete, which is a different kind of satisfaction that I like.”
I ask her if there are any canvas pieces she particularly enjoyed making and she retrieves this beauty aptly named Beetle and Eggs. If you’ve ever met Dawna, macabre is not an adjective you’d use to describe her bright and bubbly personality. Generally, such imagery in a painting indicates heaps of symbolism. But not with a pragmatic artist.
“I wanted to include a beetle because they’re kinda my jam,” she says. “Then I bought these goblets because I was like, ‘yeah these are bitchin’. And I also recently bought this skull so it had to be in there. The goblet kinda felt empty so I put eggs in it because whatevs.”
Painting objects that are simply on hand is a trick artists have employed for centuries. How many bowls full of apples, grapes, and oranges have gone bad as artists painstakingly try to reproduce the still life we may never know. But I press Dawna further on her creative impulse and where she draws inspiration from. Put simply, her creative process revolves around the purpose behind the art and the purpose is generally another person.
“I don’t want to do a piece with no purpose,” she says. “I want my art to end up somewhere so I like to think I can do this painting and give it to so-and-so. My personal life and relationships don’t transfer into my art in any emotionally direct way other than I’m usually making art for the people in my life.”
In the past, I have received a couple Dawna Whitehead originals and begin to notice the trend. Whenever I’ve seen her working on a piece it has always been for a wall besides her own. The purpose has never been self-fulfillment or personal vision, it has been another person’s happiness. The secret behind Dawna’s pragmatism is the joy she brings to others. I’ve helped out in the Face Painting tent on numerous occasions and the best part of each day is watching the kid’s eyes light up when they see the art on their faces.
“I’m not about Art for Art’s sake– I want to make art other people enjoy.” She puts down her sketchbook and makes for the kitchen. “Now do you want pumpkin or ginger cookies?”
“Pumpkin for sure,” I say.
“Good because I don’t have ginger and I already made pumpkin,” she says knowingly as she slides a plate of cookies and a glass of milk in front of me. If there were ever an appetizing metaphor for her artistic process, this plate of pumpkin cookies would be it.
For more of Dawna’s work, follow her on Instagram @doctorscribbles.